Council upgrades

Nate Watson, right, county systems support specialist, and Butte-Silver Bow Public Information Officer Jeremy Gatz-Miller demonstrate Wednesday how technology upgrades in council chambers will work. Note the large video screen — one of the upgrades — above them in the background.

After two years of talk, Butte-Silver Bow will soon stream council meetings live on the internet so people can watch them from afar.

But that’s only part of a nearly $90,000 upgrade in technology that will bring the council and its workings into the modern era and allow more people to see local government as it works.

“It will bring us into the 21st Century,” Nate Watson, a systems support specialist for the county, said Wednesday as he and Public Information Officer Jeremy Gatz-Miller demonstrated the new system pushed by Chief Executive Matt Vincent and some commissioners.

There are now two 75-inch TV screens in council chambers of the courthouse so those attending can see presentations and documents being discussed.

All 12 commissioners are getting new Dell laptops that will show those same presentations. The table in the center of the room has a new digital projector that will allow any document to be seen by everyone.

For example, if a citizen gets up to complain about a ticket she got the other day, it can be placed under the projector for all to view.

No longer will county officials and the public have to rely on an antiquated projector -– the kind used in grade schools decades ago -– or watch the presentations on an old, faded screen that showed the shadows of anyone crossing into the light.

Many presentations over the past few years were scrapped because something did not work right, leaving officials to explain things without charts, pictures or graphics.

There are several cameras in the room now, all showing different views. One shows the left half of the semi-circle of commissioners, another the right half. One shows the whole room, including the audience.

The views can be switched depending on who is speaking.

The meetings will be streamed live on the county’s website -– www.co.silverbow.mt.us -– hopefully in the next few weeks. There might be a trial run at the next meeting at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 7.

For those watching on the Internet, half their computer screen will show the live proceedings and half will show the meeting agenda so people can follow along.

But perhaps the coolest feature is one that can be used after the meetings are over and from then on.

Not only will the recordings be available any time, people can click to the topic on the agenda or minutes that they are interested in and that part of the meeting will be called up.

Also going by the wayside is an ancient board in council chambers that shows how commissioners vote on this matter or that. It is more than 30 years old and relies on an antiquated “punch card” to record votes.

Malfunctions often force commissioners to cast their votes again so the board lights up correctly. And the tallies must be removed quickly so another punch card can be put in place for the next vote.

Because of that, citizens and the media must often ask staff for roll calls after the meetings so they know how each commissioner voted.

Tallies will now be recorded digitally and can remain up on the video screens and on outside computers for some time so people can review them that night.

Commissioner Cindy Perdue-Dolan requested early last year that meetings be streamed live and said it could be done at minimal cost.

But Vincent and some commissioners wanted to wait so all the upgrades could be made at once in tandem instead of piecemeal.

In last year’s budget, commissioners set aside more than $700,000 for upgrades to the county’s computer network, including the council improvements. For months now, audio of the meetings has been broadcast live on Butte radio station KBMF-LP 102.5 FM.

“Four years ago this was a pipe dream,” Gatz-Miller said. “It was made pretty clear that some of the commissioners really wanted this to go out (quickly), but it wasn’t an overnight deal.

“We worked with them to get the radio going first and then we continually pushed this project,” he said. “It’s important for local government, for transparency and engagement. We feel this is going to be a great tool.”

Watson said training sessions will be held for staff and commissioners so everyone can get up to speed. It will still take a few weeks to roll out and adjust, he said.

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Government and politics reporter

Reporter with emphasis on government and politics.

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